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5 Keys To The Success Of The Celtic Mission

Greg B. Rast, M.Div.
November 13, 2009

The modern missions movement that began with William Carey’s courageous launch into
India (1761-1834) is slowly losing momentum. Up until recent years the heart of mission
had been based in the Western World, first in Western Europe and then in the United
States. Today with recent social changes in the U.S. and Europe, one is beginning to talk
about “post-modern mission” and debate whether such a thing might possibly exist or
whether we are simply entering into a “post-mission” era. Missiologists write that the
center of gravity in missions has moved south and argue that the base of Christian
mission to the world is now Latin America. Still others argue that a new form of mission
is emerging… mission from everywhere to everywhere and one might be tempted to view
recent changes in mission as a function of globalization.

Whatever the situation, for those Americans and Western Europeans who still find that
they are not ready to give up on their home countries, or mission of outreach, the rush is
on to find new models for doing so. The old subscription model of financial support
begun by William Carey is becoming more and more doubtful in an era of high-cost
medical care and high-cost urban environments. The role of the overseeing mission
board is diversifying. In North America, especially, we are struggling to mobilize new
missionaries out of the first generation of believers discipled by the “community church”
movement and beginning to lose the vocabulary of foreign mission, choosing instead to
focus mission vocabulary around church planting efforts on home soil.

In the midst of this climate, many have taken notice of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxaon
mission to the European continent. Christianity itself was known in Europe as early as
the 2nd Century A.D. As seems so often the case, heresies travelled faster than orthodox.
Arian missionaries, who denied the deity of Christ, translated the Bible and enjoyed early
success among the tribal peoples of Europe. In the 4th Century, through the work of
Ulfilas, for example, the Visigoths embraced Arian Christianity. It was the Celts, 400
years later, however, who would begin to make widespread inroads for the faith in
Europe. How did they do it? Several factors seem to stand out as distinct from the
European missionary movement that would later develop through William Carey and
others.

First of all, wherever the Celts went, they established permanent missionary centers.1 In
my limited experience and observation, permanence is a key issue in Western Europe,
where relationships often take a number of years to begin, and where long historical
traditions are not easily overturned. Neither cultural nor personal change happens rapidly.
By building on permanence, the Celts would enjoy an advantage not shared by later
missionary movements.

Second, the Celts were self-sufficient. The monastery was not a financial project of the
Irish church that had to be maintained for 20, 50, or 100 years. Rather, the Celtic
missionaries cleared land, planted crops, set up a chapel and services for their own
spiritual nourishment by themselves. Land and security were the two factors that they
could not provide for themselves, and it was often necessary to first secure permission
from a local ruler before building could commence. That the Celts carried with them
their own self-financing, self-supporting structure added to their permanence as a
spiritual force to be reckoned with and added to that a way of multiplying and spreading
the mission. Today by contrast, missionaries carry with them the need to raise large sums
of money to sustain themselves and their projects, and must often return home to their
supporting country to raise more money.

Third, the Celts, traveled widely from their missionary bases and made contact with
pagans wherever they could be found. Anglo-Saxon missionaries, by contrast, would
later stay fairly close to home and be directly supervised from the monastery. As
theological and political control became more and more the central issue, evangelistic
fervor lost out. The Celtic movement, however, used its missionary base for mission and
went wherever they felt a difference could be made. Throughout the history of mission,
the tendency has often been to settle close to home, rather than to rove far and wide,
discipling a few people intensively and then entrusting them with the mission. Wherever
possible, new monasteries would be started and the whole mission moved out and spread
on that basis.

Fourth, the monasteries served as centers of linguistic training. Because Europe was at
this point still very much a tribal culture, preaching took place publically, often to large
groups of people. It was critical that missionaries could preach, and do it well, in the
local language. Before taking up such a challenge, new missionaries would give
themselves to linguistic training. Today financial pressures and the pragmatic pressure
for quick results often mean that it is difficult for a missionary to justify even a year of
fully concentrated language study to financial supporters. The widespread use of English
as a business language offers and easy justification to get around the obstacle of language
learning. Missionaries often do not, themselves, immigrate, expecting later to return
home to their home culture, and for that reason only experience pressure to communicate
in the host language in situations where others cannot accommodate their language
ability. Often lacking is the language skill to powerfully communicate the essentials of
the faith, and to draw on native cultural and linguistic concepts in the process.

Fifth, the missionaries were often better off materially than their pagan counterparts. We
usually think of monks as people living on the brink of poverty who barely managed to
survive. Later abuses of the monastic system supply us with countering images of
excess. Neither one seems to really hit the mark. The monasteries were well organized.
The monks hardworking. The monasteries were centers of learning and centers of
spiritual life. In contrast today, Christian workers in Europe are often regarded (even if
you hold a Ph.D.) as relatively uneducated, and live at the margins of society. This
makes it very difficult to reach even the working middle class. That many Western
European countries still have strongly articulated class structure adds to the issue and
means that missionaries from the outside often have difficulty reaching outside the
international community. By contrast, the Celts came with real strengths in hand that
were attractive to their pagan audience. Monasteries were able to offer services in the
marketplace and influence through relationships formed there.

There are several aspects of the Celtic and later Anglo-Saxon missionary movement that
are less desirable that those mentioned above. Missionaries often did not disciple, but
simply attacked pagan faith, for example. The focus of missionary effort would rapidly
become getting pagans to assent to baptism, and with political developments leading in
the direction of the Holy Roman Empire, assent to Christianity, and efforts to unmask the
powerlessness of pagan deities often simply went hand-in-hand with assent of loyalty to
the rising political powers. More noble aspirations were to be found among the early
Celts and some outstanding individuals among them.

What is clear, however, is that the methodology employed by the Celts allowed them to
work in mission from a position of strength. Their model was at the same time, practical,
low-cost, and scalable. The missionary model that would later be developed by the
Europeans to reach Africa was not built along these lines and missionaries still
functioning on it will recognize the inherent weakness: this model was never intended to
reach Western Europe, but rather to reach out from it. I am convinced that, faced with
the challenge today of re-reaching a post-Christendom Western Europe, we would do
well to re-evaluate and re-appropriate where possible, the strengths of the Celtic mission.

1. Carl A. Volz. The Medieval Church: from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the eve of
the Reformation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1997.